What Happened to Narasimha After He Killed Hiranyakashipu?

The sun is high and hot, slashing the skin, but the breeze and the swaying coconut trees soften it, scattering shadows and cooling the meandering unpaved path I follow. The long, deceiving coconut leaves suddenly move to reveal the monolith I search for. Six and a half meters tall, the monolith of Narasimha, an avatar of Vishnu, overpowers me, making me feel helpless and tiny, an ant standing infront of an incensed elephant.


He sits there cross-legged, immense and majestic, back straight, cobra-hood throwing shadows on his sunkissed face. His tennis-ball-size eyes blaze, no matter where I stand. I am dwarfed.

Narasimha is an angry god. He broke demon Hiranyakashipu’s neck like a twig and clawed his stomach and wore his intestines as a garland, screaming in extreme delight. All because the demon king had forbidden his son Prahlad from worshipping Vishnu in the Asuric kingdom and was trying to murder the devout boy.

But not many know of what happened to him after he had done his duty for the gods. In one of the most spectacular tales I’ve come across during my readings of the puranas, the same Narasimha, after killing the demon, couldn’t control his own wrath and like an unstoppable nuclear bomb, kept exploding, burning and destroying the universe till Shiva, the god of destruction, had to intervene at the request of the devas and stop Narasimha.

The tale saw two superheroes of mythology face each other in an ultimate fight. One version says, Shiva in the form of Sharabha, an eight-legged beast, with two heads, and a strange mix of all kinds of carnivorous animals defeated Vishnu’s avatar.

The other version is vociferous that Narasimha took the form of Gandaberunda, a more ferocious bird-animal mash-up and blew Sharabha to smithereens. Whatever version you believe in, the story explores the uncontrollability of anger and how it is capable of destruction. I wrote another version, in comic format as part of my book The Skull Rosary. For that’s how tales are. They belong to no one, yet everyone feels entitled to take credit on knowing the ‘right version’.

The tipped ASI board standing like a drunk sentry near Narasimha’s monolith informs me this one is not the ugra or the angry form that tried to destroy the universe. This one is the benevolent Lakshmi Narasimha, his anger abated, his desire to destruct lessened by the tiny Lakshmi who sits on his right thigh, marred invisible by ravages of time which have broken everything but her hand, still carved around his waist. But the way his fangs pop out of his oblong cavity of a stretched mouth, his smile looks more like a snarl and it is difficult to believe that Lakshmi has any tempering effect on the guy.

In Andhra Pradesh, the tribals have their own tale. They recall how Hiranyakashipu ordered his guards to throw Prahalada in the sea, placed a boulder on him as punishment for worshipping Vishnu and that the child was rescued by Samudra, the ocean god himself. There is no mention of Holika, Hiranyakashipu’s sister, who is part of all grandma tales in northern states of the country.

The same Samudra, due to a curse was born in a tribe named Chenchu. After Narasimha had killed Hiranyakashipu, the gods invites him back to the divine abode, but he refused. Instead, he travelled through the jungles of Andhra Pradhesh where he fell for a local girl, Chenchita, the daughter of Samudra reborn, a tribal huntress who wielded a bow.

The love tale delicately describes how Narasimha plucked a thorn out of Chenchita’s foot and so wanted to marry her. Chenchita didn’t say yes immediately. She wanted to be sure he’s the right husband for her and so tested him on his food gathering and hunting skills, important for survival in the jungle. From then on, Narasimha stayed on, as a son-in-law of the tribe, coming in their dreams, to cure them of ailments.

In Simhachalam, ten miles from Vishakhapatnam, he is a composite form of Varaha and Narasimha. Scholars claim the deity is local, assimilated into the Vaishnav mainstream centuries later. Centuries ago, so the locals claim, this was a Shiva temple. When Ramanuja visited this temple, he defeated the local priests in a debate and so converted the temple into a Vaishnava one.

Lord Varaha stonecarved statue at Simhachalam temple.

I am quite fascinated with upmanship between the Vaishnava and Shiva cults, something which comes out very strongly in the story of Narasimha and Sharabha. Being a storyteller who thrives in versions rather than limit myself to one of them, I converted the whole Sharabha retelling into a dream in my graphic rendition, The Skull Rosary. For in dreams, even the impossible becomes possible. It’s Prahlad, the biggest devotee who has the dream about this cosmic fight.

The one where Narasimha, the god he worships goes out of control, trying to destroy the universe. It’s a dream, or maybe not. Prahlad is not sure but he sees the one he idolizes destroying the universe with his ferocious anger. How can his god be so destructive? And how can his god in turn be destroyed by another of the pantheon?

And if you’ve seen the blasphemous dream, how do you erase it? At the end of the story, Prahlada, who if you remember in the story is merely 12 years old when he sees his god come in Narasimha form and brutally kill his father, is terrified and confused.

In modern times, someone would’ve suggested a psychiatrist to analysis his dreams, but at that time, all he has is Narada Muni. So he goes to the Muni and asks: ‘Who is stronger, Shiva or Vishnu’s avatar?’ Narada smiles and says: ‘Vishnu and Shiva are like seasons. One comes after another. One dies, one is born. Like life and death. Don’t fall into the trap of comparison, the one that feed arrogant blood.‘ For he’s Narada, the journalist of Indian mythology, and will never take a side. Or will he?

If you know any other versions of Narasimha folklore, please do add them below in the comments section. For stories that other readers have posted, head to SwarajyaMag.com and enjoy! 


A different version of this came out in Discover India (January 2015) as my first column with them along with stars like Ruskin Bond (awesome author) and Rocky Singh (Highway on My Plate).



The ghosts of IIT Kanpur

‘Do ghosts stay in Banyan trees or Peepal trees?’ I asked the gardener, a young fellow, sitting on his haunches in the IIT-Kanpur campus nursery. It was a question which, pardon my pun, had been haunting me since days. I usually mess up my names, so couldn’t remember which tree it was that was a popular ghost hangout in India’s village folktales. In many ways, a genuine research question from my end, a writer who collects folklore stories.
‘Eh? Ghosts are not real,’ said the senior gardener, an irritated old man, before the younger one could reply, dismissing my question . I asked the same question to a  professor who had been kind enough to take me out for dinner in the city (She rides a bike, has fond memories of Kurseong, and is  a blast of a thing to hang out with).
‘You won’t find any ghosts at the campus,’ she scoffed, ‘it’s too clean.’

Over the years, the campus, as if to give a contrast to the filthy, chaotic, grimy city that surrounds it, has become pristine. The roads are swept, wild bushes have been cropped into submissive, acceptable shapes and guards open and close gates regularly, on time. It’s clockwork, it’s boxed, and I agree – a ghost would feel rather stifled.
But I wasn’t about to give up. I decided to turn to students, always more open about things that don’t exist and quite imaginative. So I headed to the undergraduate literary club (assuming people interested in fiction and poetry have higher levels of paranormal imaginations) and asked them.

‘Are there are ghosts floating around in the hostels?’
‘Well,’ said a boy, ‘there have to be no? Since there are so many suicides.’ He told me a macabre tale of a room (I forget the number) which has had two suicides in a row and then was talked about for years.
‘Yeah,’ said another, ‘but the room is cleaned, new students come in for the next semester and the ghost is forgotten.’ As I gulped that fact down, one of the students mentioned the virulent post I’d written about IITians way back. (Trust students to come well-prepared to an impromptu discussion!) I gulped again, caught. I had completely forgotten about it.
‘We thought you would come here and hate us,’ said the student.
‘It’s not about you,’ I claimed quickly, trying to mend things, ‘It’s about the arrogance that a tag like IIT carries in the society. I mean studying here doesn’t make you write better books or make better movies. Then why claim it? Do you feel proud to have come into this university?’
For I am fast learning that kids actually get depressed if they don’t get into an IIT.  With good reason perhaps. The campus has the best faculty, the best facilities, sports complexes and anything a student might need. It also has a great placement cell.
‘Everyone here gave the exam and passed it,’ said a first-year student. ‘So we don’t feel special in any way here. But when we go back home, our family fusses over the fact that we got through IIT. Personally, I feel the credit goes to the coaching class I took. They promised me they would put me into IIT if I paid their fees of a few lakhs and they did.’ There’s humbleness in the statement, but there’s also the truth: Coaching classes have cracked the IIT exam, which is one of the reasons for its skewed gender ratio in the campus today.
I continue the discussion (my badgering might be the reason they asked me to judge a haiku competition later on.) throwing in a casual question about truth and if they feel it can be defined holistically. It was a trick question. For the arts teaches you to look at the world personally, look at fractures and not the whole. The whole can never be defined. Whereas, in science, you can’t start with uncertainty. There has to be some base, some solid ground from where you start building things. The rest of the hour goes by happily, in confused arguments and flabbergasting rhetorics.

This conundrum carried into the faculty tearooms I visited. At the Arts department, the faculty I met, spoke the same language as me, that of broken pieces, of fractures. But the most interesting perception I found was at the Computer Science department which carries the creme-de-la-creme of both students and faculty at the campus. I guess because computer science gets the heaviest of salaries (a high concern for parents who’ve spent lakhs on coaching their kids to get into IIT) and remains the most fashionable professions in India today. The discussion started with two mathematics professors. (No female faculty here, so I might have been the only privileged female to have entered the tearoom in a long, long time.)
‘Isn’t all modern mathematics made of assumptions, what you would call axioms?’ I asked. Rather cheekily, I confess.
‘Mathematics is the absolute truth,’ one of them replied, ‘the language which will be understood universally, across time.’
The statement, though a good start for a mathematician who has to complete the starship started by others, was bait for the artist in me. So I fell, hook, line and sinker.
‘Will someone understand it one thousand years later?’
‘What if an alien contacts us and doesn’t understand the maths we’re working on?’
‘Not possible. Mathematics is the true language, the absolute.’
‘Ok-ay,’ I said, sipping tea for a bit. ‘Do you understand the mathematics that was explored by the Greeks and the ancient Indians?’ I had just doled out my finest trap.
‘No,’ he said, ‘But that’s because I don’t try to.’

We left the argument midway, because each had to go back to their own professions, their own convictions and passions. The conversation stayed with me because I was fascinated, as a person who’s always fractured, looking at broken pieces of truths, that someone could be so absolutely sure of proofs and axioms other humans have made. I guess it has something to do with the fields both of us work in.

Another equally fascinating encounter was with a superstar prof, again a mathematician, a really senior one, who late night after dinner, asked me a problem of something called the pigeonhole principle. Forget the solution, I couldn’t even understand the problem. He, in drunkenness of spirit, his eyes shining bright with the true power of mathematics, tried to explain it to me again and again. I might have been the most failed student he met.

I stayed at IIT-Kanpur campus for three weeks, a heavenly stay in an apartment which was far too big for me, my husband and the two minimum suitcases we carried with us. We cycled back and forth, from our office to the various canteens, an Olympic size pool, to badminton courts, to the tiny bookshop which has nothing but textbooks, to the beautiful library, to Cafe Coffee Day which has subsidized coffee for some reason, to the backlanes where guards try to stop us and little owls sit on lampposts, staring at all the human drama. We met and argued and discussed many things with intelligent and fascinating people, each working with dedication in their own fields.

We also saw how the campus, a little world in itself was a strictly segregated one when it comes to social interactions. The faculty there were the gods, followed by the students. (A male professor’s wife, who wants to throw her weight around at the campus, calls herself ‘faculty wife’, a term I remain fascinated by. In another anecdote I heard, the rickshaw pullers and the dhobis ask more money from visiting parents, citing that their child will start earning in lakhs per month in a few years time.) Then comes the staff, the full-timers who get all the benefits of a government job and live on campus, and the contractors, the ones responsible for sweeping, cleaning, caretaking, who get nothing but a minimum wage and longer working hours. Each one low on the pyramid is scared of taking decisions in case the one up on the pyramid has a problem. So far, exactly how everyone in a government establishment functions.

As I walk from the faculty apartments space to where the staff lives, the streets get thinner, the lights dim and temples and oily samosa joints crop up. This segregation between staff and faculty remains, in different canteens on campus (one of the canteens is known as staff canteen). My husband who goes and plays badminton in the old sports facility, is asked by a professor to come in the morning and play with them. Because evenings are for staff members. This divide pervades the campus as does the divide between the cream departments and artsy ones like design and literature, who are sidelined in this university, offering courses which students are forced to take in the name of ‘holistic’ education. Seems that like its clean roads, clean boxed buildings and controlled landscapes and rules, the campus has fitted in a social division too. Intelligently and logically filed, in boxes.

The rest of the adventure follows in pictures. Enjoy!

This was a perception over a short stay at the campus, not the absolute truth, rather just that–broken perceptions. Any assumptions, exaggerations, offensives remain mine.

Are stories real?

This story was recently carried in Swarajya magazine and got over 150 shares online. Thrilled! Editing this a bit and resharing.


Of stories, Oh muse speak to me.

Some time ago, I took a friend and her nine-year-old daughter to Bull Temple in Bengaluru. It’s the place with one of the country’s largest monolith bull, in the shape of Nandi, the servant bull of Shiva. The majestic Nandi far surpasses the tiny Shiva here, who you almost miss in a small alcove behind the bull. He is spectacular in size, structure and sheer architecture. To excite her, I promised this little lady, who was still sleepy and not too thrilled with the idea of seeing a temple, with a true story after she had seen the Nandi.

Once she was dragged her feet around the bull inside the temple, we sat outside in the temple courtyard, the black sculpture of Nandi behind us and I began the true story I had heard from someone at the same spot the first time I had come to the Bull temple:

“Hundred of years ago, Nandi, one of Shiva’s bravest warriors, was invited to come to the city of Bangalore to save it from its enemies. With all fanfare, a small statue of Nandi, the bull, was placed on top of a hill so that he could protect the city. But there was something special about this bull. Every morning when the people living around the hill woke up, they would find that the Nandi’s sculpture had grown in size. So it kept on happening again and again. At first the statue became the size of a dog, then a bull, then an elephant, then a dinosaur. This caused fear in the masses. Politicians and the adminsitrators of Bengaluru became afraid that if the bull keeps growing and becoming bigger and bigger, it will destroy their entire city. That was when a poet suggested that they build a temple around Nandi. If he is indoors, the poet predicted, he wouldn’t be able to look at the sky and his desire to grow more and more will stop. That will save their city. And so it was done. A temple was built around this ambitious Nandi, the walls so close that the ceiling touches the Nandi’s golden horns and there’s barely space enough to for the Nandi to stand inside. And as soon as a structure was created around the Nandi, the dinosaur-sized bull stopped growing in size, content to remain at that size forever.”

‘Is the story real?’ asked the nine-year-old wisely. ‘Yes, I think it is,’ I answered, ‘the person who told me, told me it was a true story.’ ‘No, you’re making this up,’ she replied, looking up to her mother for confirmation. Her mother, in an equal mood to make her daughter believe answered, ‘It could be real.’ She looked back at the majestic monolith of Nandi, doubt in her eyes, but also a newfound interest. Her mother looked back at me and smiled, conspiratorially. We had done it. We had plotted magic in a child’s heart.

I came back home and started to wonder why more and more of the children I see are not ready to believe in things beyond their five senses, in anything beyond rationality. I ask this to all children I meet in the various workshops I conduct in schools. They call believing in anything other than what’s been proved by science as superstition.

To a four-year-old who I met at a party one evening, I asked if he knows why we don’t see stars in the morning. When he shook his head, I told him because every morning a monster called the Sun gobbles them up. So when you see Sun, you cannot see the Stars. For a second, I saw doubt in his eyes and then he shook his head. ‘Not possible,’ he answered. When with all the dignity of my adulthood I insisted that that was the truth, he went back to his parents to confirm.

We have become a rational, logical society. So much so that we explain to our children that myths and all stories they hear are not real, not factual, but lies and fiction. In our eagerness to divide and tag everything with ‘facts’ and ‘fiction’, somewhere we lose out on the magic and in many ways the emotional truths that stories carry in themselves. Stories can capture the truths of love, creativity, imagination, dreams, aspirations and emotions, the way facts never really can. They give us a glimpse into another world. A world which is beyond what we know or understand, can touch, see and feel. They bring a sense of wonderment, of mystery, of the unknown, of possibility. Stories make us dream, so that we don’t live by the rules and facts provided to us, but make new rules, new societies, new cultures. Stories make us creative, they make us look at ourselves in a new way and bring about change in our beings.

By telling us tales of other people, other creatures, other cultures, other beings and other societies stories show us a different point of view and make us more accepting of differences. They make troll less online and accept that there can be multiple perspectives to the same thing, with none of them being completely wrong and none of them being completely the truth too. They turn us into mature, accepting beings.

I end this blog with yet another story, which my Nani told me a few months ago, sitting in her bedroom. She’s 75 now. I am, well, have been an adult since quite a while. Still, she sat me down like I was the little kid I used to be, her rheumy eyes watery (she has acute cataract and can barely see) and her voice quavered as she told me this story. A true story, she insisted which she had heard from her brother who had been to Haridwar recently, who had heard it from someone who had in reality experienced this:

‘One day in Haridwar, there was a fat-fat lady. She was so fat, so fat, so fat (Nani’s hands spread wide) that her body could barely fit into a car’s backseat. She stood on a road, asking for a ride from a rickshaw-wallah to Hari-ki-paudi, the popular holy ghat on the banks of Ganga. Since the fat-fat lady was so fat, no rickshaw driver was ready to take her up to the ghat, which is a winding road that goes up and then down and up again. She seemed too heavy! She asked many rickshaw drivers, and all of them refused. Finally a thin, scrawny driver pitied her and agreed to take her. He helped her alight on the rickshaw and started to peddle. Surprisingly, though she was so fat, the driver could peddle the rickshaw as if it was empty. She felt weightless.

‘He kept on turning back to see if the fat-fat lady was still on the rickshaw. God forbid she should fall! It was an easy ride for him and he reached the steps of the ghat, the Hari-ki-paudi. The fat-fat lady stepped down and said, “Please wait and take me back. I will just take 15 minutes for a quick dip in the Ganga and come back. Till then, hold on to this. It’s for you.’ With that she took out a handkerchief which was tied into a small pouch from her fat bosom and gave it to the rickshaw-puller. He nodded and waited. Fifteen minutes passed, then thirty, then an hour and then an hour again. The driver started to worry. Had she drowned? Worried, he went to the ghat and inquired. A lot of bathers saw a fat-fat lady go into the Ganga to take a dip but no one saw her come out. One bather informed him that he saw her clothes, floating in the water, but no woman inside them. ‘Poor lady,’ cried the rickshaw driver, ‘she has drowned in the waters of Ganga! She was so fat!’ He finally remembered the little handkerchief that she had given him and opened it. The kerchief had precious emeralds and rubies and diamonds! He went back to the same road he had picked her up from and inquired about the fat-fat lady. Finally he found out that the fat-fat lady had lived in an ashram in Haridwar. She was a rich lady and had died there with a wish to take a dip in the Ganga on her lips. She had died a year before she had met the rickshaw driver! ‘She was a soul who needed to take a dip in the Ganga to be released,’ he thought, ‘and because I happened to help her that she gave me so much money.’ The precious stones had made him enough money to make sure that he and seven of his generations wouldn’t need to work. ‘This is the biggest tip anyone will ever get,’ he thought before giving his rickshaw away. He wouldn’t need it now. This is a true story. My brother heard it from a guy who had happened to meet the rickshaw driver.’

Thank you, Nani, for making my eyes go round with wonderment, even though I insisted after the story had ended that there was no way it could be a true story. Could it?

PS: I hope instead of facts in comment boxes below, everyone tells stories and tales that they heard in temples, roadsides and from grandparents that made their eyes pop out in wonder.

The secret of Thillai Nataraja

The legend goes that once, long ago, before time was clocked, Shiva came strolling into the Pichavaram mangrove forest. In those days, magicians who thought that gods can be controlled with rituals and mantras, lived there. Shiva decided to test the sages and took the form of a bhikshuk, a mendicant seeking alms. Inspite of his matted hair and his filthy attire, the sages’ wives couldn’t control their desire. Angered, the sages sent scores of serpents after the mendicant. Shiva wore them in his matted locks, neck and waist. The sages sent a fierce tiger, who Shiva skinned and wore as a skirt. Finally, the sages sent Muyalakan (or Apasmara the immortal the demon of arrogance and ignorance). Shiva subdued him, stepped on top of it and danced the dance of eternal bliss and knowledge, in his Nataraja form and so the sages knew him. Nataraja remained behind, in his celestial dance pose, still worshipped in the Chidambaram temple today.


(Photo credit: noisypilgrims)

The secret lies behind that curtain which whispers. No one, not even the priests in the temple know what it is. Some whisper it’s the bared truth: that god is nothing, mere akasha, or ether, which is what this temple represents too. Vacuum, sheer space, emptiness. Some claim that it’s only holy men and saints who can see the reality. That behind that gauzy flutter of the curtain, Lord Shiva himself comes to strum the dance of destruction with his consort, Parvati, invisible to the naked eyes of normal people.

For those like me, the normal ones who sway between disbelief and staunch belief, all I see is a shimmering layer of golden bilva leaves which the priests have hung behind the curtain. For how does one see ether? ‘The curtain represents maya, the illusion behind which one hides oneself,’ says the guidebook I read before. Just words which don’t really tell me what I would feel. I sway to the beats of the aarti, belief overpowering disbelief, and decide that tonight, not matter what, I will gut my fears, those burdens all of us carry, will sacrifice them in this temple complex.

The curtains sway and the emptiness whispers. The devotees sigh together, itching, craning their necks, their eyes open wide, not daring to blink, for a single glance of the dark emptiness. Some stand looking up to the dias, some, like me, stand on the stairs a few feet away, sacrificing distance for height. The drums beat to the rhythm of the aarti, the devout prostrate on the floor, the priests sing in a cacophony of sound with the drumbeats and the brass bells, their wide plates full of heady smells of jasmine and camphor. I crane my neck with all others, together now, our oh-so-important individual identities slipping away in the dark cold shadows that lie all around us.

The Nataraja form shimmers with the diyas surrounding it in the dark dampness of the sanctum sanctorum. The dance signifies creation of life and its destruction after life has become unwieldy. The circle of life, the bronze ring around the Nataraja signifies the whole cosmos. This is one of the first known temples in the country which started worshipping the Nataraja form, the dancing form of Shiva. No wonder Bharatnatyam, the dance form which is inspired by Shiva’s Nataraja, still flourishes here.

The Thillai Nataraja temple is massive, covering an area of over 40 acres. Built and then rebuilt in the 12 and 13th centuries, layer after layer, the temple is the foremost of all temples for Saivites, the Shiva worshippers. Its dark corners and rooms are full of cosy shrines of minor gods, relevant for some, ignored by others. As you walk through its grand halls, with intricately carved balustrades and canopies, an occasional masterpiece in bronze, the damp smell clings to you, as do the shadows, always there, always with you. They are not scary, but they never become completely comfortable too. They are what they are, shadows, floating full of your fears and supernatural powers. Things you don’t really understand.

In contrast, the courtyard is full of life. Every evening, its grand space flows with a sea of locals and tourists alike, sitting in conversation, gawking, praying, singing, laughing, walking, huddling. Estimates state that around a 100,000 people flock its stone paths every year. Chidambaram falls in the Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, ruled since centuries by Cholas, Pandyas, Vijayanagara, Marathas, the British before it became part of India. The Thillai Nataraja temple which is the heart of the town, named after the tillai trees that used to surround the shrine but now have receded ten kilometers away to the Pichavaram mangrove forest.


Ten kilometers away, the Pichavaram mangrove forest sways to the tandava still, open to the sky as we float amidst it in a small wooden dinghy. The darkness in the temple has opened up to the blue, clear, cloudless sky. Rooted in a few feet of water, spread over a whopping 1100 hectare area, the mangrove trees with their clawed out white roots, shiver together, dancing the eternal dance of nature, in a huddle, constantly whispering the secrets that they hold so close to their bosoms. I, in the dinghy that drifts between their huddles, stare up at the eternal trees, jealous at the stories lost, the eternal tales the grand Avicennia and Rhizophora trees tell. They whisper it to the many varieties of birds that come to their branching, pecking on their leaves and fruits. The watersnips, cormorants, egrets, know it as do the storks that fly high and the spoonbills and pelicans. They stare back at me, from the untouchable heights of the tillai trees and tweet about the dance. I look at them as an outsider, a wanderer and wonder what they know, to be at peace so.

This is one of the stories I’ve heard about Thillai Nataraja’s secret. Another, which I find a little silly is about Shiva showing up to Parvati that men are better, by doing a dance pose which she can’t. That one’s too middle class, too sexist and too banal and a complete let down of the beautiful philosophy of Shiva, Bharatnatyam and the Goddess. If you have another version, do retell it below!

(First published in Discover India August 2014)

Brain or the sexy body?

Sexuality simmers in ancient tales of India. While I was researching for my current book (a series based on tantrism), I came across the lovely tale from Vetala Panchavimsati, an older version of Vikram-Betala stories.

In a temple in the city of Shobhavati, through the favour of Goddess Gauri, Prince Dhavala marries Madanasundari, the daughter of the king
named Suddapata. Svetapatta, Suddhapata’s son, one day proceeds to his own country along with his sister and her husband. On the way they come across another temple of Goddess Gauri. Dhavala goes into the temple to pay homage to the Goddess. There he happens to see a sword, gets obsessed to offer his head to the goddess and does the same. When he does not return for long, Svetapata enters the temple and gets stunned to see Dhavala dead and his head presented to Goddess Gauri. Through some irresistible urge he also cuts off his head and presents it to the Goddess.
After waiting for a long time for her husband and her brother, Madanasundari goes in to beg something of her. She requests the Goddess to restore her husband and her brother. Hearing this Goddess Gauri asks her to  set their heads on their shoulders. But out of excitement Madanasundari puts the head of her husband on the body of her brother and that of her brother on the body of her husband. Both of them come back to life as such. Madanasundari then realizes her mistake, but what has been done cannot be undone. At this stage Vetala asks Vikram, ‘Who is Madanasundari’s husband, the man with her husband’s head, or the man with her husband’s body?’ The King’s reply is that the person with Dhavala’s head on his shoulders is the husband.


Girish Karnad got inspired by this tale and created his play Hayavadana. The story has been taken thanks to scholar K Mangaiyarkarasi’s research paper which compares this tale with Girish Karnad’s interpretation of it. It’s fascinating how richly coloured our myths easily exploring even taboo subjects. The story swims with incestuous undertones as well as questions one’s idea of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’. By today’s high prude standards, it’s insulting and could get someone into jail, even because of retelling of it.

Another thing that next ceases to amaze me is how tantrism and its esoteric cults in this country represent the breathable spaces, the perforated gaps in the suffocating, prudish morality of today. Which is perhaps why the cult is considered evil and seen upon with fear.

Open sky to open the soul



I have always felt that a daytrip out of the city, in sunshine, with the open sky above you and the green fields all around you, is the best way to rejuvenate your senses. I visited the awe-inspiring Somnathpura temple this weekend with a bunch of friends. It was my second visit to this ASI Heritage temple located near Mysore. It still completely flummoxed me with its beautiful and made my heart palpitate with wonder. The temple, done in the baroque-ian Hoysala style of architecture, is a mammoth of fine sculpturing. Can’t believe that this art was woefully lost in the dark tunnels of time. What I love about the temple is that all round it, there are scenes carved on the walls that include gods, goddesses, dancing girls, musicians, gurus, all kinds of animals. It kind of opens up my mind on the life that was led in those times (13th Century). Can you connect to people who lived in this same space some 800 years ago? Were they too like us, with emotions like us, or were they something completely different, with ethics completely different from us? Here are some pictures to keep you dreaming.


These pictures make me write new stories. I am always thankful for the beauty in this country to inspire.

Forest Tales: Little Loris

Little Loris lives on a bamboo tree far inside the green forest. Her eyes are like big saucers but she is as small as a coffee mug. Mama Loris thinks she has the most beautiful eyes. They are round and huge and bright. In the day, Little sleeps. At night, she wakes up and plays. She loves to find bright colourful little insects and eat them. She hits Mama with bamboo shoots and swings away, laughing as Mama comes to catch her.

One night, as she is eating a small shoot, there comes Big Man. He looks up high and sees Little Loris. Then he smiles and offers a thin long thing to her. Little Loris smiles too and offers Big Man a bamboo shoot. Then something sharp hits Little and she falls down.

When she wakes up, it’s dark but not as in the forest. It doesn’t smell like bamboo. It stinks of Death, like when her Uncle Loris fell from the trees. There are no sounds here. Everything is dead. The floor is hard and it hurts. Little is afraid. She tries to reach out to find a branch to cling to. But her hands are tied. She cannot move her hands. She cries and cries. She misses Mama and Papa Loris.

Some time later, a bright light shines. Little closes her eyes, scared. She opens them a little. Big Man looks down and smiles again. He gently takes her out and makes her sit on his palm.

‘I want Mama,’ Little tells Big Man. Big Man smiles again and takes her to Fat Man who sits next to Fire. She is afraid of Fire but trusts Big Man. He will take her back to her Mama, won’t he?

She hears the Fat Man smile.

‘Her eyes are huge,’ Fat Man says to Big Man. She remembers how Mama told her that her eyes are pretty. Fat Man is good too. He will take her back to the Forest.

Then Fat Man comes to her with a sharp knife. It glistens in the Fire. Big Man uses the knife to scoop out her big saucer shaped eyes. Her pretty eyes. She cries out as pain and blood shoot out. Then they peeled off her skin. There’s so much blood and so much pain.

He picks Little up and throws her in the Fire. She burns and burns. Then everything turns black and dead. She thinks she hears Big Man laugh.

Big Man sings with Fat Man

‘We will sell her skin to the Leather Man

To make pretty bags for rich women.

We will sell her eyes and meat to the Quack

To make magic medicine for the Unwise.

And then we will be rich, oh so rich

We smell the tempting bag of Money!’


Little Loris hopes she will meet Mama again. She wants to ask her what Money means.



Slender Loris is a small, nocturnal primate who lives in the Eastern Ghats. Native people believe that all parts of the Slender Loris have some medicinal or magical powers. Their body replaces voodoo dolls in black magic. Their skin is used to make expensive leather bags. This has contributed greatly to their decline in the state of Karnataka. Though it is illegal in India to catch a Slender Loris, the trade of catching them and using them for black magic, leather and pets is high. There is no counting of how many of these little primates have disappeared from the Ghats.

Forest Tales are a series of fiction loosely based on true stories I hear from wildlife conservationists. I am working on these to create awareness for a wildlife conservation NGO called Vanamitra (www.vanamitra.org) based in Bangalore. Please do share these stories.

Tale of Hem Vayanattu Kulavan Theyyam, the toddy bhuta

Shruti and Smriti are two wise sisters. Smriti or Memory comes to you while you are reading things. You remember her wise lines long after she’s gone. Shruti or Listening comes to you anytime, on the road, in a movie, while you travel. She tells you secret things brought from the Wells of the Wise. After you hear them, she smiles and sprinkles the dust of Forgetfulness. So all you remember is that you heard something somewhere which changed something in you. The tale I try to tell you here, is of the latter kind. It was told to me while I was sitting somewhere, with hypnotic drums playing in the backdrop. It was told to me by a stranger. I don’t know if it’s true. I don’t know if this is how it was told to me. But something of it (which I try to retell) stayed with me. Don’t miss the videos in the end of this blogpost.


Sort of facts:

It is a festive night as people start to gather in front of a small temple in Kannur, Kerala. The drums are beating fast and slow. The occasion is a ritualistic dance of Theyyam, or bhuta-in-human form, which comes to the coastal Malabar area of Kerala every year from January to April. There are more than 500 bhutas in the district, all can solve (or bring) a particular type of a problem, disease, dosha. These bhutas have been there since a long, long time. They are mentioned in the Mahabharata. They have lived in these places since times immemorial, since people had problems. We are waiting for the bhuta-of-the-night, Hem Vayanattu, to come and retell his story, like he does every year.

I sit in a makeshift greenroom outside the temple. This is where a man who is about 40 years of age is dressing up in elaborate costumes. He has bright vermillion lips and dramatic eyes drawn with black charcoal. His whole body is green with bright white light-like dots on his slightly protruding stomach. He’s a mere man right now, being dressed up by his father (who is 60ish) and his son (who is in his 20s). In a few moments from now, he will become a host to the Bhuta. When he’s ready, he will become a vehicle for Hem Wayanada. He will become a source through which the spirit can retell its story, reenter the world of the living and talk to the people. He knows it will happen and so readies himself. There’s excitement in the camp. There’s also nervousness. Mere men are never comfortable when a spirit from another world is about to enter their world. He wears the heavy headgear and swathes of colourful clothes in the sweaty balmy night. He’s in the theyyam-becoming business so knows that this is his moment—when he becomes god-like, from the mere man he is. He’s sweating and looks tense. He takes a sip from something that looks like toddy. I am assured it’s a kind of ginger tea.



The story retold:

An hour later, Hem Vayanattu comes. He hunches and sits down next to me. He spits. I turn to him and try to take a photo. He shakes his head. Listen, he whispers. His breath smells of toddy and his eyes glitter dangerously. I become a little wary. I have to be, being a female in today’s time. I smile hesitantly. He grins and begins.

A long, long time ago Hem used to be a mere man. He doesn’t remember when. All he remembers was that he lived in a village next to the Forbidden Forest, where no humans were allowed. Rumour was that the Forbidden Forests was the abode of Lord Shiva himself, who came there in the nights and made merry with his ganas, his hordes of bhuta and preta. Anyone who would go there would die. He never ventured close to the forest.

Then one day a sweet breeze from the Forbidden Forest ruffled his hair. A flame hit his heart. He became restless and angry and frustrated. He would catch himself walking to the end of the village everyday where the Forbidden Forest stood. He stood there for hours at the Edge, trying to peer inside the forests, to see what it was that made it forbidden. One night, as his family slept (did he tell you he had a family? A wife and two children) he stood up and left. He took a deep breath, and entered the Forbidden Forest. There was no trail to show him the way, since no one had entered the forests before. No human that is. He walked on. The forest thrummed with a rhythm. It grew dense and dark. So dark that even black kajal would shine like a lamp in there. He was scared, his heart thumped up and down rhythmically like a drumbeat from his stomach to the middle of his neck. The hair on his back and arms stood on attention, as if they were trying to guard him from evils around him. He knew that he was in danger. In those times, real tigers and poisonous snakes and other things roamed the forests. They weren’t afraid of people. They ruled the forests.  He walked and walked. He doesn’t really remember why.

Then he suddenly came across a clearing. Moonlight blinded his eyes as they became used to the light. He saw Lord Shiva dancing with his ganas. Bhutas, pretas, deformed creatures of the night were laughing, screeching, drinking and merry-making. But he wasn’t afraid. Lord Shiva turned to him, his eyes glittering. “Do you want to join us, Hem?” he asked kindly. Hem nodded, mesmerized. What else could he have said? So he became a Gana, a creature of the night. For a thousand years, he danced, drank and made merry. It was a happy time.

Then Lord Shiva left without saying a good-bye. The Ganas were devastated. Every night, they started to keep 108 pots of fresh toddy in earthen ware to call Lord Shiva back to the Forbidden Forests.

“Do anything but don’t drink from those pots, Hem,” warned a Gana as he was about to reach the pot, “They are a prasad for Lord Shiva.”

One thousand another years passed. Lord Shiva didn’t come. Every day, the ganas would keep those 108 pots of toddy reserved for him. Every night he wouldn’t come and the toddy would go waste. Meanwhile, the forest begin to change. It leaves turned yellow and brown spots appeared on its feet. It begun to die, being rhythmically cut by humans whose population was growing stronger. All the Ganas, except Hem, one by one left the Forests to go deeper into the lands of the Earth. But Hem didn’t leave. He sat in the clearing alone, under the moonlight, looking at the toddy that was going waste every night. He was so thirsty. He wanted a sip.

One night, as he sat alone in the forest, waiting for Lord Shiva, he felt so thirsty that he couldn’t resist. He wanted a drink, so he went and picked up a pot of toddy meant for Lord Shiva. Then he drank. He drank and drank till his sweat became stinky. He drank till his eyes dilated and he fell on the ground. He drank till his bloodstream and piss was full of toddy. That night, Lord Shiva came to the Forbidden Forest. He saw the empty pots and a dead-drunk Hem. He got angry and with a flash of thunder, tore out Hem’s eyes. For he had sinned and taken the toddy that belonged to Lord Shiva.

Blind and bleeding, Hem roared through the Forbidden Forest. He fell and tripped on branches. He was bitten by many insects. He couldn’t see. He was angry! What kind of a Lord is so wrathful that he cannot share a mere drink with his servants? As his anger softened, he felt remorse. He realised that he had done wrong. He prayed to Lord Shiva for forgiveness. He was after all a man, a spirit, not a god. He was prone to mistakes. A thousand years more he prayed and Lord Shiva came. He smiled and said:

“Hem Vayanattu (for that was the name of the Forbidden Forest), I will give you divine sight so you can see. Stay here and see what is Real. See into other men’s hearts and tell them what they want to know. Show them their deepest desires and fears and guide them.”

So Lord Shiva left and Hem Vayanattu was left behind to handhold the people living beyond the Forbidden Forests.

Hem lights up a beedi and smiles with his crooked teeth, “I am not a man or a god. I am just someone who has to do Lord Shiva’s work. I am just someone who crossed a line, twice and lived to tell the tale. And now I come here to guide my people. What do I know about choosing the right path? I just like to come here and drink toddy that is offered to me.”

His eyes are sharp. They hit my heart like daggers. His powdery lips bend like a bow into a frozen smile. He gets up, rubs off the dust and hollers. The audience shivers as the drums start to beat faster and faster. He dances and dances as the night falls darker and darker.


I am willing to bet that I have got this story wrong somehow, but then, I am a storyteller and forget and make up with other things. If Hem Vayanattu Kulavan Theyyam (or someone who knows his story) has a different tale to tell, I would love to listen.

Kolkata during Durga’s reign

Made a recent trip to Kolkata during Durga Pooja. I planned to write a blog on the travel (before I went there) but after experiencing the whole city during the throngs of art, aesthetic, stories, religiosity, happiness and sheer sublimity, I am kind of out of words. Hence I have decided to share with you a poem I wrote on the airplane while I was coming back from the trip. My head was clogged with sinus and my heart heavy with what I had just witnessed. As is the way of emotion and words, I hope to give you an essence of the transformation I went through seeing the beautiful idols on display and being immersed.


And lo! Durga falls down

The fire of right
Shines through your starry sari
As you stand slightly staring
With those big, diamond-shaped eyes
On to the little girl with oiled pigtails
Black lips sucking on an ice lolly.

In red and white
And purple and silver
With necklaces wound delicately
Like slumbering snakes
You merge burning desire and danger
In everlasting serpentine curves.
You ethereal mystery, you.
How you smile slightly, almost ironically
Moist clay corners of your lips tilted upwards
As she stares at you
Hoping to find
Some solace
For her broken tears.

You float freely
Hailed by harnesses
In the bright light falling
On your bejeweled bosom.
Your calm, cushioned cheeks
Plush like apples.
He looks up, his belly stirring
With a rush of guilt and desire
As he takes off his black glasses
Carefully wiping off the sweaty dust
That has gathered
Standing in the sweaty crowd.

Your feet play hide and seek
In your bridal sari.
One delicate foot
Crushes the demon’s arrogant neck
Suffocating him to death
Your spear tears off his chest
Spurting a stream of blood
A new coloured river.
We look at the blood
And thank you
It’s not us.

You coy, shy bride!
Your hands and feet
Stained with crimson red.
Delicate wrists
Hold the sword and spear
And move with a tinkle
Of green glass bangles
Awaiting a love, long lost.
I look at you and think
Your job’s almost done
Tomorrow you will be gone too.
I know but don’t know
How and why
You would go.

In the dark, sultry night,
Your million hands and arms
Spread like the sun’s last rays
A magician’s card trick
About to be played.
The drums beat tireless
As palpitating excitement burns
Under the orange flood lights.
This is the moment they were all waiting for!
In the truck’s shadow you stand
Silent, waiting for the policeman
To flick his final hand.
The drums beat into a frenzy
Fleshy feet and hands and arms and breasts and hips
All jive and twist and turn and swirl and dance
As the drums beat and beat and beat and beat.
The artificial lights sparkle like stars
On her shining waters
As her soft, clingy, fine mud
Beckons you to come.

She waits for you
Her dirty arms stretched
Her body covered
With centuries of filthy flesh dips
And carcasses and mellowed flowers and broken ceramic cups
And shiny plastic packets.
Sins of flesh and heart and mind and greed
All churn and mix and become one
In her accepting waters.
She is bejeweled too
Her boils ooze plastic like
Her blackened skin moistened with electric lights.
Her brown blood oozes
Onto the shores
With silt and sweat and tears and piss
Her waters call out in anticipation.
They look at you
They look at her
With cultivated disinterest.
From their vantage point
On a small luxury cruiser
Nursing a glass of wine.
Fashionably crinkling their noses
As the slight moldy smell of retch
That rises up to the deck.

You look at her
Your deep, dark eyes
Marked red in corners
And maybe your heart heaves
Becomes so heavy
That the fleshy men carrying you
Slip on her fine muds
One almost being crushed.
He mumbles a quick thank you
As he pushes you again
Towards her.

For just a moment
You stand in all your regalia
Your dress resplendent
Like a thousand suns
Your hand raised in blessing.
And maybe you are slightly perplexed
As to why?
But then, splash!
You fall
Into her.
Your face looks upwards
At the heavy stars
Hanging low, like overripe jewels
In a dungeon sky.
Her cooling waters
Takes your paint away.
Black eyes and small red pout and cushy cheeks and double chin
Is all ripped off by its skin.

You cannot see or hear or smell or taste.
As she sucks you further into her womb.
Like she sucked centuries of flesh and blood and sweat and piss.
They turn you upside,
And the cold, murky waters
Set to work,
Calmly licking
Your skin and bones and veins and blood.

You float and feel
The million others like you.
Your bones softly bumping
Into another you, then another, then another
And then another.
You cannot see or hear or taste or smell
Only feel, only feel
The cold, weathered snake-like hand
That coils on your now empty breast
Pulling, pushing, peeling, pushing.
He grips your bared bones
Sweat mingles with forgiving waters
His dhoti stuck stubbornly to his innards.
He hauls you and thinks of home
His plate of rice and hot fish curry
His empty stomach rumbles as he sees
An endless assembly line yet to heave
Of you and you and you and you.

Maybe you cannot feel now.
I hope you cannot feel anymore.
The rusted crane clutches your innards
With her big, metallic claws
Away from her cold, murky womb.
For a moment
One of your arms
Still white with green bangles
Shines in protest
In the darked up night
Trying to reach to the skies.
But then the crane heaves
Dashing your brittle bones
On a hill of empty
Wooden carcasses.

Maybe you wondered why.
Maybe you knew.
What is born and made
Will crumble to down to dust.
Your holocaust of carcasses
Stands tall as a reminder
Silent, nursing, resting, tired.
Waiting to rise
When time turns
And yet another demon
Needs to burn.

For one moment
My painful heart sinks and cries out
And maybe my soul sours
Up in the dark, murky sky
Calling you,
Grieving for you,
Remembering you,
Becoming you.
I trip and fall backwards
On the deck of the civilized carcass
Floating, for now,
On the balmy river bed.

© Shweta Taneja, October 2011

Check out some of the videos from my travel to Kolkata.


A heartfelt thanks to my friends K and R for their hospitality, company and thoughts. You can continue to read my other poems here.

Sanskrit Book Fair 2011 in Bangalore


It was a place to remember and a place where some prejudices about Sanskrit, our ancient language, were discarded. Spent a day at the grand Sanskrit Book Fair cum conference held in Bangalore. With 1300 volunteers, 154 stalls with 128 publishers and 4 crores worth of sales (took it form the same website), the fair was a grand success. See the enthusiasm and energy for yourself.


Outside the book fair


I was also surprised by the sheer amount of people who spoke fluent Sanskrit (Read up the Wikipedia entry on it). Enthusiastic city dwellers, villagers, students, teachers, scholars and passionate people were just ambling along the area suffused with sunlight, chattering with people in sanskrit, picking up books, hugging each other like long lost friends and generally having a ball walking in the midst of the ancient language. The book exhibition was huge with publishers and titles from across the country on epics (which is why I was there). They also had a village built into the exhibition area (other than the all pervasive food stall of course) which had a post office, a school, a repair shop, a vegetable seller, the works.


Enthusiastic seller of vastra!


Modern reading and writing in an ancient setting


Kudos to the NGOs and the government that made it happen. I aim to learn the language and practice it at the fair next year (or is that too hopeful?).